Why does everyone hate clowns?
One study of 250 children in a hospital ward in England found that every single one of them disliked clowns. And adults aren’t huge fans either. One poll found that adults are more afraid of clowns than terrorist attacks, their spouse cheating on them, and climate change!
The answer to this question is surprisingly relevant to our pursuit of happiness.
Clowns creep us out because there is a gap between their external image and their internal state. Their painted-on smiles hide their true feelings: beneath their painted smiles, they might be scowling, crying, frowning, glaring, or leering. We don’t know where we stand with them, and we don’t know what they might do. Their false happiness hides their true selves from us, and this ambiguity and unpredictability scare us.
Unfortunately, we’ve created a society where there are creepy clowns everywhere. We demand that people paint on a happy smile and pretend all is well when on the inside, it is very much not well. This is called ‘toxic positivity’. Toxic positivity demands that we should always “look on the bright side,” “grow from this moment,” and “remember that you’re lucky!”
We all hate clowns, but we have built a world where they are everywhere, even when we look in the mirror. How many times have you felt that you had to paint on a smile in order to ease someone else’s anxiety or make them happy? How many times have you felt that your suffering was uncomfortable or inconvenient for others, so you shut it down and pretended that everything was fine? Studies have found that this culture of toxic positivity actually leads to increased negative emotions and a reduction in our overall well-being.
Of course, there is also value in choosing to be optimistic, to see what is positive, and to shift our mental states. But like everything we do in Western society, we’ve taken this idea to an extreme. Just think about the global admonishments to “make your quarantine productive!” and “use this time to be the best version of yourself!” This week, my friend Maya (a New Happy Hero!) wisely pointed out another example of toxic positivity to me: people feel that they can’t share how much they are struggling right now because there are so many others who have it so much worse. True wisdom lies in knowing how to experience, honor, and accept our emotions and acknowledging when it would serve us to shift them.
Two New Happy Principles
- Don’t force yourself into being a clown.
- Don’t ask others to be clowns.
You might find, like me, that you are your own worst enemy when it comes to toxic positivity. Many of us have swallowed the culture and perpetuate it in ourselves, and unknowingly ask it of others, too.
Here are a few science-backed strategies to help.
To address toxic positivity, we need to learn to recognize that we can feel multiple emotions at once. When I catch myself beating myself up for not being more positive, or hissing under my breath to look on the bright side, I stop, pause, and use this strategy.
Close your fists. In your left fist, imagine that you are holding all of your negative emotions. Slowly open your fists, imagining that you are seeing those emotions resting in your palm. Look at them. Acknowledge them. Name them. Feel them. Let them sit there. Keep that hand open.
Now, open your right hand. Imagine all of the positive emotions that you feel: gratitude, optimism, hope, love, and so on. Look at them. Acknowledge them.
Look at both of your open hands in front of you, holding your emotions. Recognize that you don’t need to choose one hand. When you are ready, close your fists. Anytime you feel yourself veering into clown-ville, squeeze both of your fists to remind yourself that you are capable of holding these emotions at the same time.
Cause, Not Effect
When I do feel ready to shift my state in a positive direction, there is a far better strategy than forcing yourself to think positive thoughts. It is the practice of prioritizing positivity, a scientifically-validated strategy that asks us to start at the beginning rather than the end.
Toxic positivity asks us to force an effect without an appropriate cause: just be happy for no reason and be it right now!
Prioritizing positivity invites us to start with the cause, and let the effect flow naturally from it, whatever it may be: do the things that generally lead to you feeling happy, but don’t stress if it doesn’t. Let the experience be whatever it is.
Identify the events, experiences, and people who tend to make you feel positive, happy, energized, authentic, engaged, and so on. I suggest starting up a note in your phone or on your computer to track these. For example, in the past week, I felt good when I did morning walks, exercised, baked, wrote, and talked to beloved friends. The next time you want to shift your state in a more authentic and nontoxic way, pull out your list, and engage in one of your activities. It’s important that you allow the experience to unfold however it may, and not judge your emotions or responses.
Prioritizing these positive experiences in your days is a far better strategy for authentically shifting your mood and cultivating optimism and gratitude.
Don’t Make It A Circus
We can do a great service to others if we don’t ask them to put on a painted smile and to suppress their pain. The next time that someone comes to you with a problem, instead of subtly shifting them towards seeing the positive or moving past the pain (which we often do because of our own discomfort), simply focus on being present with them in their suffering.
Try using phrases like:
- This must be so hard. I am so sorry you’re going through this.
- Tell me more about how that feels.
- Your pain is so valid. Anyone who was going through this would feel this way.
- Thank you for sharing your feelings with me. You are so brave.
- I care about you. I’m here for you.
All we all really want is someone who sees us and is willing to acknowledge our experience. You can be that person for someone else and for yourself.
This post was previously published on The New Happy and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: iStock